It was a normal Friday morning’s drive through Auckland, across the causeway on the motorway at normal preschool speed – an average speed that had me singing the old hymn “I’ll walk with thee” – and grateful that I’d set out early. Chris was expecting me at her place to garden at eight o’clock. Speed picked up through Point Chev and Westmere, then up Jervois road to the bridge approach.
The on-ramp was popular that morning, so the approach lights were on, and the line, forty deep when I joined it, idled toward the coat hanger. At that speed, there’s time to look around, and my eye was caught by a flicker of movement to my right. A pigeon, a rat of the air, pottered about on the verge looking for scraps of roadkill.
She didn’t look very well. She limped as urban pigeons so often do, her feathers had a rumpled, seedy look about them, and one of her wings drooped in a way that suggested recent injury. And then, four cars ahead of me, she decided to walk under the car. And it moved.
Panicked, the bird sought escape, and she nearly made it. But the front tire caught her back end in a way that ensured she’d never move from the spot under her own power again. She lay there trying to get up, waving her one good wing and raising her head, looking for a way out. The car behind the one that had struck her carefully drove around the stricken bird, and part of me understood why.
We don’t like to kill. Actually, that’s not true, as so much of our economic life these days seems to involve the slow, calculated killing of people we don’t know, a long way away where we can’t see or hear them. What we really don’t like is to know that we’re killing. Fish from a boat that’s at sea for years at a time, caught by men and women who have no rights, no passports, no treatment for injury or illness, who are dumped overboard when they are no longer useful and forgotten. Battered or crumbed? Five dollar tee-shirts made by children who never see daylight, let alone a schoolbook? Bargain! Rana Plaza? We did that.
But a small grey lice-ridden unlovely bird? She was there. She was personal. We could see her suffer, and suffering we can see is suffering we want to – I was going to write stop, but no, the three cars ahead of me didn’t stop the bird’s suffering. Not one of them opened the door, scooped her up and sped off to the nearest vet. Nor would I have expected them to. What they did do was to avoid her, carefully driving around the small heap of misery.
Were they right? What right have we to take another’s life? Every right, apparently. Ask a butcher. Meat is an animal that used to be alive. Usually, it is born and raised under supervision, fed what we decide it will have and, after a few weeks, or months, depending on species, it is taken to a place where it is put onto a conveyor belt and subjected to various processes that eventually kill it. A certain amount of pain is involved. We are told that if meat was raised without pain and killed on the farm without preamble or drama, it would cost a lot more, and it’s not practical. I wonder for whom?
The pigeon was not a farm animal. It was wild and free, just like the drivers who carefully avoided doing it further damage. It–she–had their respect at some atavistic level. Did she have mine?
Is life in pain and terror life? Is life in the face of imminent and inevitable death desirable? Did she know she was out of options, there on the road? Apparently not. She struggled, trying to rise, and looked me in the eye. And I couldn’t bear it. I didn’t turn my wheel but kept straight, and felt no tremor from the wheel as it went straight over her, flattening the small heap of feathers, stilling the life within it forever in the most difficult thing I’d do all day, a small act of mercy.